School & District Management

Compromise Plan For D.C. Governance Stalls

By Catherine Gewertz — February 09, 2000 5 min read

After weeks of wrangling over how to structure the District of Columbia’s school governance, a series of 11th-hour disapprovals and dashed agreements left frustrated city officials little closer last week to rebuilding their school board than they were when the effort began.

The City Council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams had spent many hours in sometimes tense negotiation to come up with a plan for a hybrid board of elected and appointed members.

But that fragile consensus collapsed at the last minute, and the council scrapped the compromise and decided to let Washington voters choose between the mayor’s plan, which would allow him to name all the board members, and the council’s plan for a fully elected panel.

But some council members worried that the issue could divide a city already sensitive to issues of who is in charge, and that a delay in shaping the school board would only slow improvement in a district plagued by academic and financial trouble.

The question of who runs the public schools in the nation’s capital has been up in the air since 1996, when the financial-control board that oversees the city’s operations stripped the elected school board of most of its powers.

That arrangement is set to expire in June, and dissatisfaction with the elected board has prompted the recent efforts by Mayor Williams and others to come up with an alternative.

The ‘Best Deal Possible’?

The issue came to a head at the council meeting on Feb. 1. After a full day of closed-door meetings and public debate, Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp, with obvious frustration, called the issue “one of the most difficult” in her 10 years on the council. But by the next day, key officials were putting a more positive face on the struggle.

“The mayor has always thought that taking it to the voters was the best deal possible,” said the mayor’s director of policy, Gregory McCarthy.

“What transpired was the honest give-and-take of negotiation between two branches of government that is part and parcel of democracy,” he added. “What came out was what everyone could agree on.”

Kevin P. Chavous, the chairman of the council’s education committee, said the best solution would have been an agreed- upon plan that the council and mayor could jointly “sell to the voters.” But he still had warm words for the outcome.

“Now the citizens will have stark options to consider, and we will clearly get what people feel is best,” Mr. Chavous said. “That is a good thing.”

But within 24 hours, the chairwoman of the congressionally created financial-control board, which has powerful sway over city affairs, expressed her disapproval, putting a question mark over exactly what would end up on the ballot.

“I don’t know where we are, I just don’t know where we are,” one council aide said.

The council had been prepared to approve a plan that would have reduced the current 11-member elected board to nine members, with five elected and four appointed by Mr. Williams. That plan represented significant compromises both for the mayor, who wanted an even smaller, mayorally appointed board, and the council, which favored an all-elected body.

But a letter from Mr. Williams—delivered to council members the morning of the vote—unraveled the agreement. In the letter, Mr. Williams agreed to the compromise with obvious reluctance, but complained that it served the council’s political interests more than the best interests of the school system’s 77,000 students.

Stung, council members abandoned the compromise plan. Their draft legislation would place on the November ballot two scenarios: a nine-member, elected board empowered to choose the superintendent, or a five-member board appointed by Mr. Williams, who would also have the power to appoint the superintendent, subject to the council’s approval. If neither option won a majority, the current board structure would remain in effect, since any change requires voters to approve an amendment to the District of Columbia’s home-rule charter.

A Thorny Path

But the road to November is littered with stumbling blocks. Alice M. Rivlin, the chairwoman of the financial-control board, urged the council and the mayor to reconsider, saying she was worried that the campaign leading to the vote on the competing measures could be politically divisive.

“I think the two choices represent extreme views,” Ms. Rivlin, a former top official of the Clinton administration, said late last week. “I think it would be better to have a proposal on the ballot that could have more broadly based support. They had a compromise. A mixed board seemed to me the way to go.

“I hope they will reconsider and come up with a proposal we can all support.”

Even if such a compromise is reached, Congress still has the power to strike it down.

The financial-control board has already returned decisionmaking powers to the city government, but with the school governance structure unresolved, it is considered likely that the control board will extend its oversight of the school system through the calendar year.

City leaders had sought a compromise to head off that possibility. They were also mindful of warnings last month by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia, that if they didn’t come up with a workable plan, Congress might do so itself.

If the school board becomes an appointed body, it will join a small but growing trend in urban districts, said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. School boards are elected in 96 percent of the nation’s 14,700 school districts, she said, but only in 83 percent of urban districts. Boston and Chicago, for example, have mayorally appointed boards.

Both types of boards can be effective as long as they put the students’ best interests first and foremost, Ms. Bryant said.

Joshua S. Wyner, the executive director of the DC Appleseed Center, a local advocacy group that is active in school affairs, said the issue need not become a politically destructive one.

“It will only be as divisive as people make it,” he said. “There is a substantive decision to make. If we focus on that substance, we can have a healthy debate about what is best for kids in this city.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2000 edition of Education Week as Compromise Plan For D.C. Governance Stalls

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